Jewish Role in Iraqi Music

Yeheskel Kojaman
January 9, 2011

This conference is dedicated to discuss different aspects of the life of the Jewish communities in Iraq and other Arab countries. I, therefore, am not going to speak about music as I usually do, but I will talk about the relation of the Iraqi Jewish community to Iraqi music. This subject differs in Iraq from the life of any other Jewish community in any other Arab country.

Everywhere where there was a Jewish community there were great Jewish musicians. There are lots of great Jewish musician names all over the world. I will take Jewish musicians of Egypt as an example. There were two great Jewish musicians in Egypt, Daoud Husny and Zaki Murad the father of Layla Murad and Munir Murad. Daoud Husny, for instance, was a musician who composed at least nine songs for Um Kulthum and was the only composer who composed a song for the greatest Arab musician, Muhammad Abdul Wahhab.. He also composed for other singers such as Asmahan. He was the person who suggested her musical name Asmahan But these two musicians were two among tens of other great musicians such as Salama Hujazi, Abu Al-Ula, Sayyid Darwish, Zakariyya Ahmad, Sami Shawwa, Amin Mahdi Muhammad Al-Qasabchi and tens others.

The situation in Iraq was different. In Iraq during the first half of the twentieth century all instrumental musicians were Jewish and there were many great Jewish singers and composers. In fact the greatest composer of modern music in Iraq at that period was Saleh Al-Kuwaity who composed most of the songs for all the lady singers such as Salima Pasha, Zakiyya George, Nargis Shawky, Afifa Skander and others. There were other Jewish composers like Daoud Al-Alkuwaity, Salim Daoud, Salim Zibly, Daud Akram, Yakub Al-Imary, Izra Haron and otheres. In short, in the Radio broadcast and in all the night clubs of Baghdad there were only two non Jewish instrumentalists, Husain Abdallah the percussionist in the radio team and a oud player in the team of Salima Pasha called Saliba Al-Katreeb who was a Syrian.

In the special musical tradition of Iraq called Iraqi Maqam no non Jewish instrumentalist was known. All the players of the two maqam instruments, the Joza and the Santour were Jewish. The music tradition of Iraqi Maqam is a repertoire of precomposed songs composed according to special rules and sung by all Iraqi Maqam singers. The two string instruments used to accompany this singing were the Joza whose sound box is made of a Joza (coconut) shell and the Santour which is a special kind of a dulcimer. When the Iraqi government wanted to participate in the first World Arabic music congress in 1932 in Cairo it had to send the Jewish players who did not even know how to wear a suit or a shoe. The only non Jewish member of the team was the great Maqam singer, Muhammad Al-Qubbanchy. This Maqam tradition was unknown to other Arab countries or even to European musicologists. It therefore was a surprise to them and it was considered the best musical team in the congress.

Now one has to ask, what were the reasons for such a situation where all the instrumentalists were Jews?

Some people, especially in Israel, believe that the reason is that this music was a Jewish music. I think that this idea has no basis of truth. If it was a Jewish music it should have immigrated with the Jewish community to become a developing music tradition in Israel where the musicians were. Iraqi musicians played the greatest role in oriental music in Israel. Most of the members of the oriental orchestra in the Israeli radio were Iraqi. But this music did not develop but deteriorated there. A musician who died did not leave new musicians after him. Nowadays only musicians of more than eighty years old remained there and they can be counted on the fingers. Few young musicians are interested in Iraqi music today. But these musicians learn the Iraqi music as a foreign music exactly as an Iraqi musician learns classic music or Chinese music.

Calling the music played by Jewish musicians a Jewish music belittles the role of the Jewish musicians of Iraq. It is making these musicians as musicians of a hundred and twenty thousand people whereas they were in fact the musicians of all the millions of Iraqi people.

May be one could say that the reasons were the special musical talents of the Jews. This also seems not true to me. First of all, most of the great Maqam singers were not Jews. There were several Jewish Maqam singers such as Yusif Horesh, Salman Moshi, Salim Shibbath, Heskel Kassab, but there were also the greatest Maqam singers as Ahmad Zaydan, Rashid Al-Qundarchi, Najm Al-Shaikhly, Muhammad Al-Qubbanchi and many others. Moreover, after the immigration of the Jews, there are now hundreds of great musicians in Iraq. So it is not a matter of special Jewish talents.

It seems to me that the most important reason was that the Muslim families did not allow their children to play musical instruments, they considered playing music as a low life. But they treated the singing as related to singing the Koran and thus respected the singers. Most of the Muslim Maqam singers were Koran singers at the same time.

If one can talk of a Jewish music or Muslim music, he can only talk of religious music. Such music is used only in religious occasions. Great names are there of Koran singers in all Arab counties and of course in Iraq. Great canters are known among the Jews in Iraq and elsewhere. Zaki Murad used to go every Kippur to Jerusalem as a canter. But both the Muslim and Jewish religious music are based on the same rules of the Maqam music. They used the Maqam rules with religious words. Almost all the Jewish singers in both musical traditions used to be assistant canters during the prayers of the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the fasting day.

I have a reel to reel record of the greatest Iraqi canter in Israel, Shlomo Muallim which by the help of the SOAS I succeeded to convert into five CD records. I gave a copy of them to the great Maqam singer, Hamid Al-Saadi who listened to them and analysed every piece into its Maqam and took the discs with him to Iraq in spite of the fact that almost all the religious and the non religious songs were in Hebrew.

Jewish community in Iraq was an intimate part of the Iraqi society. They participated in every field of the life of the society. There were good Jews and bad Jews. There were exploiters and exploited, rich and poor, there were writers, poets, journalists, lawyers, doctors, financials, politicians and even part of the ruling class. There were even persons who behaved as feudal sheikhs and had vast arable lands with Jewish and non Jewish peasants working in them. The best Amber rice was called under the name of the Jewish family Khalaschy. Even in the army there were few famous officers. But one of the most important parts was played by musicians. All Iraqis liked music and enjoyed to listen to Jewish musicians. One could not feel any distinctions between Jews and Muslims or Christians in the field of music. In music the real brotherhood of all the people was felt. Iraqi Maqam musicians were usually invited to the houses of ministers, lords and rich Muslim families. One never felt a prejudice against or pro Jewish in the field of music.

By immigration the Jews left a great need for musicians in Iraq. At the beginning the government had to borrow musicians from other Arab countries. Before the immigration of the Iraqi Maqam players Saleh Shummail, the Joza player and Yusif Pataw the santour player were obliged by Nuri Al-Said to teach two Muslim musicians to play the two Maqam instruments. The Maqam singer Hashim Al-Rejab learned to play the santour and the musician Shaoobi Ibrahim learned to play the Joza. These two musicians were the basis of teaching the new students to play them. Today there are tens if not hundreds of the Maqam instruments players. Maqam music is an Iraqi musical tradition and remains as such as long as there are Iraqi people.

But what was the fate of the Jewish musicians who immigrated to Israel? There were in Iraq enough musicians to entertain all the people of Iraq. In Israel they became musicians for 120 thousand people who were reduced as Iraqi music fans every day. Best music lovers who were old died. Young boys and girls grew on Israeli music. So what was the fate of those hundreds of musicians?
Few musicians were lucky to form the oriental orchestra of the Israeli Radio. The orchestra was formed of about twenty musicians most of them if not all were Iraqi. These few musicians lived a decent life as musicians until they retired. After them there was no fixed oriental orchestra in both the radio and television. Most of those musicians died or became so old that they cannot play a real role as musicians. A film which reviewed Iraqi musicians did not talk to any musician who is younger than eighty years old. The most famous old musicians remaining today are very few as Salim Zivly, Abraham Salman, Alias Shasha, Alber Alias and very few others. A young musician of an Iraqi origin called Yair Dallal who is a classic violin player was attracted to oriental music and learned to play oud and became famous in Israel.

Hundreds of other musicians could not get their living from music. Saleh Al-Kuwaity who used to talk proudly about the present which king Ghazee personally offered him, a golden watch with his picture printed on it, and who was invited by the Prince of Kuwait through his ambassador in Baghdad to come back to his birth place, could not get his living in Israel from music. He and his brother had a very small kitchenware shop for living.

Salim Daoud the great musician who could be compared with Saleh Al-Kuwaity, who was the sole composer of Salima Pasha for five years, and when the famous Egyptian singer, Ragaa Abdu came to Iraq she asked him to go with her as her composer to Egypt, and who when once quarrelled with Afifa Skander and did not talk to her she asked the prime minister Arshad Al-Umary to persuade him to forgive her and talk to her, lived on his blind person government pension in a one and a half room miserable flat.
Yaaqub Al-Imari who was the nay player in the broadcasting band in Iraq and became a famous Iraqi Maqam singer in Israel had to go back to his profession as a shoemaker for living.

Meir, the oud player in the Ikhwan al-Fann band became a telephone opereater. Tens of students of the blind children school had to use the professions which they learned in the school to save them from begging such as brash and rope making for living.
The great Iraqi Maqam singer, Heskel Qassab and the famous qanoon player Yusif Zaaroor formed a musical team to entertain Iraqi families which liked the Maqam music until they died on the same day.

Saleh Shummail the Joza player died in the tent camp where Iraqi Jews lived called Maabara for few years. Yusif Pataw the Santour player became deaf and could not play there. The Basson brothers, Khadduri the Santour player and Ephraim the Joza player, died after a short while in Israel. Saleh Al- Kuwaity tried to play the Joza without success. Today there is no mention of the Joza and Santour in Israel any more.

In short the Iraqi musicians were cut from their Iraqi roots and became like a bunch of flowers which remains beautiful and fragrant for a while but does not grow new flowers.


Yeheskel Kojaman
SCRIBE magazine

The Iraqi Jewish community settled in Iraq long before the Arabs occupied the country.

Jews mastered the Arabic language quickly, and participated in all fields of life. The leaders of the community were treated with great respect by the Khalifs.

This article deals mainly with the role of the Jews in music during the first half of the 20th century. The Jewish community in Iraq liked instrumentalists and treated them with respect for their skills and their artistic talents. Thus, during the first half of the twentieth century, Jews were virtually the only instrumental players in Iraq. They were the musicians of the Iraqi people. In 1932, for example, all the instrumentalists who attended the first Arabic music congress in Cairo were Jews, while the singer, Mohammed Al-Qebbantchi was Moslem. At that Conference the Iraqi ensemble received the first prize from King Fuad. When Iraq Radio was first established in Iraq in 1936, the entire instrumental ensemble, apart from the percussion player, was Jewish. Almost all instrumentalists in the night-clubs of Baghdad were Jews. For this reason, on Yom Kippur and Tish'a 'be-Ab, the two most solemn days in the Jewish calendar when Jews did not play music, no live music was broadcast on Iraq Radio; only records were played.

During the late 1920's, an instrumental ensemble at a night-club consisted of violin, qanun (plucked trapezoid zither), ud (middle-eastern lute) and two percussion players. Only in the broadcasting station were cello and nay (flute) introduced.

Singers, both men and women, were of different religions - Moslems, Jews and some Christians. The most famous woman singer, since the early 1930's, was a Jewish vocalist called Salima Pasha (later Salima Murad). At the time, it was considered shameful for a woman to sing in public, so that no respectable family would allow their daughter to become a professional singer. Thus, a situation existed whereby women singers (and dancers) were recruited from local brothels from among those who had musical talent. Despite this, Salima Murad was loved and respected; she was asked to sing at numerous private parties where she earned a high fee. She is known to have helped many people financially, and by interceding on their behalf at Government level when necessary.

In 1936, an institute was started for the teaching of instruments, singing and acting, but most of its instrumental classes were for brass and other western instruments, such as piano and violin. The only eastern instrument to be taught was the ud (middle-eastern lute). However, another institution, the school for blind Jewish children existed since the late 1920's. It was started so as to teach these children a profession - such as weaving, and the making of brushes, cane seats and cradles of rope - to save them from the usual fate of begging. Most of the children liked music, and the school provided them with instrumental lessons. Many of the students became musicians in Iraq, and later, as part of the Arabic Music Ensemble Qol Yisrael (Israel Radio), was formed of these blind musicians. The term "Art Music" is used to denote all music which is pre-composed, and thus in most cases has a known composer; it is distinct from folk music. In Iraq, there are two traditions of art music as sung and played in the big cities such as Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.

1. Modern Music

This tradition is identical with music sung and played in all other Arab countries. In vocal music, it was Egypt that dictated the new repertoire. Composers and singers of new songs appeared first in Egypt, which became the leader in the development of the "modern music" style. The new repertoire then spread to other Arab countries. It was only in the late 1920's that Egyptian musicians began to compose new instrumental pieces.

In Iraq, new compositions emerged somewhat later than in Egypt. Until the early 1920's, there were no famous composers, except for Ezra Aharon, an ud player who was one of the musicians in the group that represented Iraq in the 1932 Congress of Arabic Music at Cairo; he later became famous in the Middle-East Broadcast (from Cyprus), and later (first in Palestine) and then in Israel, as the director of the Arabic Music Ensemble for Israel Radio.

During the 1920's, two brothers began to gain prominence in the field of music in Iraq; the Kuwaiti brothers - Salih, a violin player, and Dawud, an ud player. Almost at the same time, the name of a woman singer, Salima Pasha (then Salima Murad) began to achieve fame. The brothers, Salih and Dawud el-Kuwaiti began to perform and to compose new songs for Salima. Salih became the most prominent musician in Iraq, and Salima became the most famous singer. Following the opening of the Iraqi Broadcast Station in 1936. Salih was asked to form the official music ensemble for the radio station. It was due to him, that two instruments, the cello and nay (flute), were introduced for the first time into the instrumental music ensemble.

2. Iraqi Maqam

In Iraq, this second tradition of art music is known as Iraqi Maqam. No other Arab country had encountered this form of music until the Congress of Cairo in 1932.

The Maqam tradition in Iraq is in fact, a composed repertoire of about sixty songs, to be performed by a solo singer accompanied by an instrumental ensemble, the latter being known as the Chalghi Baghdad. In the past, the Maqam (pl. maqamat) was also sung without instrumental accompaniment. Most Maqamat were composed before the twentieth century. Some were composed by known composers, for example, Ahmed Zaidan and Mohammed Al-Qebbantchi (both twentieth century composers), and some are anonymous. These songs are transmitted orally from one singer to another, and on the whole are sung as the original composer composed and performed it.

All these songs were composed according to a strict set of rules which they share in common, and any new Maqam must be composed according to the same set of rules.

The Maqam is usually formed of three sections - the tahrir (introduction), the matan (the text of the poem) and the taslim (conclusion). Generally, they are all sung with instrumental accompaniment.

The Maqam is often followed by a light song called pasta. The instruments that are used to accompany the maqam singer, differ from those used in the Modern Music tradition. The maqam ensemble, called the chalghi, consists of a santur (struck dulcimer), a kamana-joza (a four-string spike fiddle; body constructed from a coconut shell) and two percussion instruments, the daff (frame drum, with metal discs) and dumbuk (goblet-shaped drum; also known as "tabla" in Egypt.

During the end of the nineteenth century and until about the beginning of the 1950's the chalghi instrumentalists were exclusively Jewish. This profession was strictly a "family business." During this period, there were two such chalghi ensembles in Baghdad - the Patao ensemble and the Bassoun ensemble.

Maqamat were sometimes sung in coffee houses. Traditionally, though, they were performed at family celebrations; at such celebrations they performed until morning. At such performances, the maqamat were divided into five groups known as fusul "chapters." Each fasl (chapter) is composed of four to six maqamat, based on different melodic modes. These maqamat are generally sung in the same order, and are not repeated in another chapter.

Each maqam is followed by a "pasta." There are many pastat in the same melodic mode, and the singer may choose any one of them. The texts are mainly popular dialect. The pasta gives the audience an interval of light music during which they can clap, accompany the singer and even dance, changing the atmosphere from the very serious attention which is demanded during the singing of the maqam.

The majority of Iraqi Jews emigrated to Israel during 1950/51. All the Jewish musicians emigrated as well, except for some of the women singers, such as Salima Murad, Sultana Yusef, Nadhima Ibrahim. Musically, it was a difficult period in Iraq, as there were insufficient musicians, but the problem was initially solved by using graduates of the Institute of Fine Arts and by borrowing musicians from other Arab countries. Later, many musicians and composers in modern music appeared, and any new maqam singers and chalghi players were trained at the Institute, which opened a special branch for teaching maqam.

In Israel, the situation for the Iraqi musicians was also difficult. In Iraq, their numbers had been sufficient to play to the millions of Iraqi people, but in Israel they found themselves limited to an audience of only tens of thousands - and an audience that is diminishing day by day, because the old are dying and the young are now accustomed to Israeli music.

There was only one Arabic music ensemble in Qol Yisrael (Israeli radio); the ensemble originally consisted solely of Iraqi musicians most of them young graduates of the School for Blind Children in Baghdad. Salih and Dawud el-Kuwaiti continued to play and compose and sing in addition to their regular work to earn their living, outside the music profession. Music was part of their life, and they continued to play and sing to their last day.



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